April 17, 2016, Sheep in the Valley – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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The reading from John today is about a confrontation. It happened in December, or at least the Jewish month that corresponds to December, when Jesus was at the Temple in Jerusalem, during the Feast of the Dedication,which today is called Hannukah. Most of the religious festivals we read about in the Bible are from the time of Moses, more than a thousand years before the time of Jesus: festivals that celebrated the power of God in saving his people, like the Feast of the Passover, and the Day of Atonement. But the Feast of Dedication celebrated a much more recent part of Jewish history.
Just about a hundred and seventy years before Jesus was born, a Greek king named Antiochus Epiphanes IV was building himself a nice little empire, and he conquered Judea and Samaria. He persecuted the Jews and outlawed all Jewish religious rites, and he entered the Temple in Jerusalem and set up an altar to Zeus. And he sacrificed a sow on the altar, an animal ceremonially unclean, intentionally desecrating the Temple.
So in 167 b.c. there was a revolution, led by a faithful Jew, a hero named Judas Maccabaeus, who defeated Antiochus and purified the Temple and re-dedicated it to the true God. The Jews made Judas Maccabaeus king, and he and his descendants became a new dynasty for about 100 years, until the Romans swept in and took over Judea, and set up Herod as their puppet-king. (And Herod married a princess of the Maccabean lineage just to make himself look more authentic.) And that’s the story behind the Feast of the Dedication. It’s all about nationalism and religion – and very much about politics.
And the reason that is important to know, is that it helps us understand that the confrontation with the Jews was also very much about politics. Our translation says that the Jews gathered around Jesus, which sounds kind of friendly, but the Greek word really means they encircled him completely – it means they surrounded him, right there in the Temple, in the covered walkway called Solomon’s Portico. And they demanded to know who or what he was claiming to be. “Listen, it’s time for you to stop beating around the bush. We want a straight answer: are you the Messiah or not? When are you going to tell us?”
They had been observing the miracles he did, the healings and other works of power, but they were getting impatient for him to begin fulfilling the political ambitions they thought he should have, if he were really the Messiah. This was not a friendly discussion. It wasn’t even an academic debate. It was a dangerous situation. If we read just a little farther in the chapter, it turned out that when they didn’t like the way Jesus answered them, those men had stones in their hands and they threatened to kill him right then and there.
But Jesus answered them, “You’ve already seen the answer for yourselves; the works I do prove that I come from the Father. The reason you don’t believe me is you don’t belong to my sheep. My sheep know my voice.” It’s a question of belonging: where does your loyalty lie? Where have you placed your trust? Those Jewish leaders couldn’t recognize the voice of the true Messiah, because they were listening for a worldly Messiah, somebody who would come with military strength and political power; somebody who would vanquish the Romans like Judas Maccabaeus vanquished the Greeks – they were expecting a sort of Trump-Messiah who would make Israel great again.
But remember what Jesus said, when he had been arrested and was standing before Pilate, and Pilate asked him if he was the king of the Jews, Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it was, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from this world.”
It is easy for us to see where the Scribes and Pharisees went wrong. But we aren’t immune from making the same mistake. It is always a tendency for us, even those of us who love the Good Shepherd, when we are confronted by all the competing voices around us, to forget where our hope lies, and to put our trust in the kingdom and the power of this world. These are scary times: the news every day is full of violence and fear and hatred and confusion. The world seems like it’s changing at the speed of light: people do things and say things and make choices that are beyond our comprehension.
And here it is, 2016, and an election year, and it is all too easy to get caught up in the rhetoric – which candidate can keep things from going completely off the rails? Which one can keep us safe from ISIS and crazy people with guns and weird viruses and bankruptcy and the general moral rot that we see on television every night? Which one can fix us? There are plenty of Christians out there ready to tell us which candidate is the ‘Christian’ candidate. I think a lot of people were kind of holding their breaths this week when Bernie Sanders gave a speech at the Vatican, wondering if Pope Francis would give Bernie his endorsement, as if that would give him kind of a holy seal of approval.
It is a good and important thing, as human beings and residents of this nation, to be as thoughtful and intelligent as we can be in the things of the world. It’s important to search our conscience and be well-informed and to make our best choices in the upcoming elections. But it is essential for us to remember that we don’t belong to this world. All Christians are resident aliens. Our citizenship is from a different kingdom. And when all is said and done, when we’ve cheered for our candidate of choice, and cast our ballots, and when we’ve watched the election returns, whether that fills us with joy or with dismay, the truth is that our only hope is in the Good Shepherd.
There is no human candidate or political party or power on this earth that can compete with what Jesus says about the sheep that belong to him. “I give them eternal life. They will never perish, and no one can ever snatch them out of my hand.” Those who belong to the Good Shepherd have eternal life, eternal belonging, eternal security. That is the truth; that’s the good news of the gospel. But it is really important for us to know what to do with that truth. Some Christians get caught up in the politics and power of the world and forget to put their hope in the Shepherd’s promises. But other Christians take their good news and just kind of check out, leaving the world to deal with its own problems. As the saying goes, they are “so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good”.
But here’s the question: why does the Good Shepherd pasture his beloved sheep right smack in the middle of the Valley of the Shadow of Death? If we are his own beloved sheep, what are we doing here? And the answer is this: we are here for the same reason he was here. “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life.” The Shepherd came out of love for this world, because he was their only hope. And we are here, strangers in a strange land, for the same reason: because we who follow the Good Shepherd have what the world is dying for. We do well to vote intelligently and to be responsible citizens. But our real power in the world is that we belong to the Good Shepherd.
William Temple, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War, is famous for saying that: “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” In other words, we sheep are here, not for our own good, but for the good of the world around us, the world that is beloved of the Father, the world for which our Shepherd laid down his life. The world is being brought back to life, and we, dumb sheep that we are, have been called to be part of the healing process.
We have been appointed as his ambassadors of reconciliation. We aren’t just
American citizens with voting privileges: we are the light of the world. And our light isn’t political power or military strength or super-intelligence or even morality. It’s forgiveness, and mercy, and grace, and kindness and gentleness and compassion. Those are the rays of light that can pierce the world’s darkness. Those are the fruits of life that we have from the Shepherd, but they aren’t for our own private consumption; they are the life-giving weapons of the kingdom of God. We don’t belong to this world anymore. But we follow him into the world, as he delivers this world out of bondage to sin and death: raising up the neglected and forgotten, breaking the chains of those who are trapped, bringing the light of hope to those who are in darkness.